It was frightening, it was boisterous and it was noisy, but Papillon survived. The Grand National winner came unscathed through his reception party in Co Kildare yesterday, but there were still the obstacles of a procession and evening celebration to overcome.
Papillon was back in his own digs by 9am and Ted Walsh, his trainer at Greenhills near Naas, was about four hours behind. "I want to make sure the horse makes it down to the village beside us in Kill for a parade to welcome him home," Walsh said. "It should be a good, old hooley down there."
It was good to see Ted back to normal. He is not a man who offers his opinion timidly. He is forthright, in person, in print and, on the television, in vision. As an experienced media practitioner, he knows how to collect his thoughts. You never see him out of control at work and certainly not at the bar, where Diet Coke is his regular order.
Yet Saturday was a different day and a different Ted. He was shaking with emotion as his jockey son Ruby and Papillon returned, tears in his eyes, kisses on cheeks. He took Betty Moran, the American owner, in a WWF-type hold. "It has been a great day to be alive," he said as he hyperventilated.
Ted Walsh had watched the race from the box of J P McManus, where the really strange business occurred. "I am not a nervous person," he said, "but, by Jeez, I couldn't hardly look at it [the race]." Walsh claims, and this will need corroboration, that he was struck speechless by the unfolding events. Many never thought such a day would come.
It was a compelling National, even for those not associated with the winner. There had been blood on the Aintree turf in the preceding days, but that would have been nothing compared to a fatality in the big race.
There were, however, bad pictures for the television viewers to stomach on the first circuit. The drizzle on Merseyside had left the surface greasy, and when horses fell on Saturday they fell a long way, sliding along like stricken skaters. There were screams from the stands as five departed at the first, and further gasps as the spruce was hacked from the top of the fences and shed on the ground like hair on a barber's floor. Ten were out by Becher's and an automatic impulse was to ignore the front of the race and undertake a limb check as the fallen struggled to their feet. But nobody died out there.
Tony McCoy and Dean Gallagher suffered minor injuries, while Micko's Dream, the most seriously hurt of the equine contestants, was "very comfortable" in the Leahurst Veterinary College yesterday. He was due to undergo x-rays on an abdominal injury sustained when another faller landed on him.
Papillon, the most cantankerous of beasts, was aroused by the challenge and even before he reached the Melling Road his ears were starchly pricked and stayed so throughout. He easily found the balance between extravagance and safety which Aintree demands.
Papillon was cleverly fed round the inside by a jockey as faultless as he was. Ruby Walsh was lock-kneed and erect in the stirrups at the line as he knew the day was his. He slashed the air with his whip and then came the beautiful moment which the National provides each year. The winning jockey was congratulated warmly by his colleagues, not out of a sense of duty, but because they were all genuinely pleased for him. The National is all about escaping from danger, and those that make it do not feel too bad about recognising the first man over the barbed wire.
The calendar says Ruby is 20, but that is all that is immature about him. His hair is already flecked grey, he rides with a panache not usually associated with his father, another former Irish amateur champion, but he does have the old man's shyness. That is, nil. "I was proud to have trained Papillon, but twice as proud to have my son in the saddle," Ted Walsh said yesterday. "He is only 20 and it will be a great lift to his career.
"It's remarkable that of the 14 horses here we have Rince Ri, Commanche Court, my Cheltenham winner of a couple of seasons ago, and now a Grand National winner. Yesterday was one of those days when our luck was in, simple as that."
There was also evidence that a National factor remains and those trained for the job are those which succeed. Papillon tuned up for Liverpool away from the Cheltenham glare in a Leopardstown hurdle. Mely Moss had not run for a year, and was proven over these fences. Dear Brave Highlander, who only just beats lights out at the racecourse for the first part of each season, was fourth, two places better than last year.
There were other old soldiers to salute. Suny Bay may not be quite so quick over the top these days but he still answers the bugle. He now has 120 National fences behind him and a record of two seconds and two 13th places. One spot behind the grey was Camelot Knight, who has not won since 1993 and will never win again. The third behind Lord Gyllene in 1997 has been given an honourable discharge from active duty.
Papillon will be back, possibly at Punchestown next month, before a build-up to next year's National. His weight and initial price will never be the same again. "Mike [Dillon of Ladbrokes] gave me 50-1. I was thinking ahead and wanted to cover the price of a few drinks and a good party," the trainer said. Last night, in Co Kildare, they were working their way through Walsh's pot.
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